Spontaneous Plants are Beautiful 1
When did we see the first plant in our life, touched them, crawled through them? During childhood we probably often had a significant contact at eye-level with the wild plants.
We met them in natural surroundings, on roadsides, in brown fields, in gardens and all over the city.
Not long ago in the history of human mankind all plants and all vegetables, fruit and cereals, were wild-growing and free-living plants.
Of course it took time to come out of the dark and flowerless forests. Tacitus described these woods which scared so much the Romans! During several thousand years of cultural history in which we gained ground out of the gloomy woods and mythic mountains where Pan housed, elves and monsters and dangerous animals and no homelike hostel anywhere. Three thousand years of cultural history of urbanization in Europe, rooting out trees to exorcize panic, to create cities and smiling gardens. Unwittingly through the clearings, meadows, countryside and human trash and garbage we created an accompanying flora, a new and steadily changing wild flora that follows us like cats and dogs, mice and rats, likewise intelligent and worth our neighborhood and esteem.
Rome is the oldest inhabited city in Europe. Here for example the multi use and heeling Parietaria developed herself and spread everywhere 2. The tasty plant Galinsoga in the sixteenth century came over from Latin America. Have a look at your balconies, at the potted plants, Galinsoga is there. In the final decade of the last century Senecio inaequidens from Africa transgressed the Alps and now embellishes with clouds of yellow flowers our traffic roads and railway lines. There is an increasing tendency that urbanization attracts and creates plants with their inseparable insects. They spread out to neglected areas and niches of urban texture.
Our way of living made this affluence and opulence possible. Enriched by their presence we now have become responsible for them: It is fascinating to discover the omnipresent micro jungles, the green shades, the miniature mosaics of light and shadows. And whenever we contemplate them we find beauty around us and in ourselves.
For a moment we stop to judge nature and empathize with it. Spontaneous nature is beautiful, because it gives us an idea of real good living. Nature culture city. It is not the quantity but the quality aspect of diversity that creates beauty.
The personal discovery of urban wildlife can lead to an experience of comfort, security and ease, a kind of benign „slow motion“ effect. We should develop a partnership with these undervalued but indispensable companions of our life. The small heroic wild plants grow in concrete deserts and resist the permanent airstream and exhaust gases of the roads. They teach us alternative urban gardening, teach us to use less water, spend less money and eat better and more healthily.
If we were to live in closed spaces, we would die of our own gases and evaporation. When we breathe deeply, we inhale oxygen produced by plants. They can filter for us lots of contaminants and pollutants without committing suicide.
People should get simple and effective tools to deal with spontaneous plants, should hear about „Good Harvesting Practice“ in order to understand and safeguard their own well-being.
What do Jack-by-the-Hedge, Bithynian Vetch, Smooth Cat’s Ear, Ruine de Rome, Venus‘ Looking Glass and Purslane 3 have in common? You can eat them!
In antiquity more than 3000 plants were used as food. In our days the worlds food mainly consists of 15 species, among them corn, rice, potatoes and some vegetables. Knowledge of the edible wild plants is lost or is familiar only to the happy few.
As research stands now we share two thirds of our genes with plants. They are our ancient kinship. I suppose that otherwise we would not be able to eat or digest them.
Spontaneous tasty green food is not only an ornament or an extravagance for the haute cuisine that slowly, slowly is appropriating wild plants. This spontaneous green food is fundamentally first class prime material 4: It enriches the normal diet with different tastes, stimulates gastric functions and provides vitamins, minerals and fibres.
There are many ways to use the plants: they can be eaten crude in salad, boiled in soups or cooked as vegetables (e.g. Crepis, Hieracium, Picris, and Lamium). They can be used as spice to intensify the taste of the dishes (e.g. Glechoma, Artemisia, Diplotaxis and Tanacetum). The Romans and Gallic people used anis weed, fennel and other Apiaceae in bread, later in the 15th and16th century humulus lupulus was used in the same way. Indeed the most known aromas derive from largely cultivated plants such as garlic, onion, sage, rosemary, rue and others. The continuous use of spontaneous aromatic plants helped keeping the antique traditions alive: in Europe cumin, fennel, and anis weed; in the Orient and in Africa e.g. nigella and sesame.
Today, we have the possibility to choose between many tastes in our own area, enough to develop new combinations. For example wild mustard plants and similar brassicaceae, many refined mints and cresses, sweet melilot, the intelligent thyme variations, the light lamiaceae, the stronger flavoured pastinac, coriander and similar apiaceae.
The botanical garden of Florence is one of the three oldest of the world and founded by Cosimo de Medici. There Marina Clauser permanently cultivates about 200 comestible wild plants. In Tuscany, about 400 comestible wild plants are known, 530 counting the naturalized ones, plus the ones that are difficult to identify and to distinguish from each other, like the genus Taraxacum or Achillea. But all are usable for culinary purposes and therefore they are included in the permanent cultivation.
In the last thirty years in North Rhine Westphalia wild flora restores itself in surprising velocity, thanks to the activities of Wolfgang Schumacher 5. In the outdoor parts of the botanical garden of Bonn 6 Wolfram Lobin cares for the cultivation of a splendid collection: about 2.000 species of useful plants and wild plants, among them many eatable; the best way to get acquainted with the city wild life.
In Cologne wild plant adventures take place in Finkens Garten 7. A garden full of nature experience for children in preschool age, official project of the UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development in Germany.
Try to combine the warm yellow colour of the calendula with the blue of the borage. Eat all shades of colours, experience freely with them. Decorate dishes and invent recipes with wildflowers and be inspired by the following list:
You find on the tables lists of names of culinary and healthy delicacies in six languages. Out of the many thousand possible eatable and drinkable spontaneous plants in Europe I have chosen a few hundred. Many of them grow and live in and around Bonn.
A survey showed that German people have an average knowledge of 5 species of plants, 7 species of animals and 19 brands of cars.
Lonicera, Reynoutria, Setaria, Cymbalaria. The names of the plants are often beautiful and meaningful to us. They are abstract to the plants themselves who certainly do not read botanic books. The names given to them witness the passion of true „amateurs„, of delighted enthusiasts, of researchers and scientists; the names impart popular knowledge and their attributed properties. The names evoke landscapes; they create memory and analogies with the fauna. The names narrate of the spirits of times and of living cultures.
Aleluya, Gold of Pleasure, Blue Eryngo, Carthusian Pink, Alcanet, Maravilla, Melilot 8. A name, a denomination does not reveal the essence of a plant, but its name may arouse our interest in it, because „what I don’t know by name I will not preserve or care for„. A name personalizes social beings; indeed wild plants are social beings. They can care for each other, they can harm each other, repel insects, bugs and animals, they could even kill us but they also live in complex and well functioning societies: they emanate such a peace and comfort that stressed-out persons will look for them to relax.
Walt Whitman, Song of the rolling earth:
The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out.
1 Homage to Sandro Pignatti, Flora D’Italia
2 Ref. to speech by Sandro Pignatti, in Museum Casa di Goethe, Rome 2007
3 (Alliaria petiolata, Vicia bithynica, Hypochaeris glabra, Cymbalaria muralis, Legousia speculum-veneris, Claytonia perfoliata)
4 Ref.to Marina Clauser: Maurizio A., 1932 — Histoire de l’alimentation végétale depuis la préhistoire jusqu’à nos jours. Payot, Parigi; Blondel J., Aronson J., 1999 — Biology and Wildlife of the Mediterranean Region. CNRS Oxford University Press, Oxford
5 Prof. Wolfgang Schumacher, Vertragsnaturschutz, Institut für Nutzpflanzenwissenschaften und Ressourcenschutz (INRES), Fachbereich Ökologie der Kulturlandschaft — Geobotanik und Naturschutz, Universität Bonn
6 Dr. Wolfram Lobin, Botanische Gärten der Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
7 Finkens Garten just received the UNESCO Award for the second time (offizielles Projekt der Weltdekade der Vereinten Nationen „Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung“ 2007/2008)
8 Oxalis acetosella, Camelina sativa, Eryngium amethystinum, Dianthus carthusianorum, Anchusa officinalis, Calendula arvensis, Melilotus officinalis